Johnnie To is one of Hong Kong cinema’s best kept secrets. Once described as the successor to John Woo, he has proven himself a very different kind of filmmaker, with influences as varied as Sergio Leone, Jean-Pierre Melville and Akira Kurosawa, and films that are more concerned with the inner workings of the crime world, than the thrilling set-pieces associated with Woo.
PTU is a simple but intense film, that shifts focus to the police rather than the triads for a change. It follows Detective Lo Sa “Fatty” (Lam Suet) as he is drawn deep into Hong Kong’s criminal underworld after losing his gun. Calling in a favour from his old acquaintance from the PTU (Police Tactical Unit) Mike Ho (Simon Yam), the two spend the night using their influence to retrieve his weapon and save his reputation.
To has made no secret about his love for Kurosawa, paying homage through camerawork and editing, and even making an entire film (Throw Down) as a tribute to the great director. PTU itself is an unofficial remake of Kurosawa’s film noir Stray Dog, and it has the unmistakeable feel of classic noir running through it. It’s shot in beautiful widescreen, and Suet is just perfect as the sweaty, desperate hero. His performance is reminiscent of noir anti-heroes like Richard Widmark and Zero Mostel, and the rogues gallery of criminals he encounters over the course of the night recalls noir classics like Night And The City, Pick-Up On South Street and Panic In The Streets.
Yam is a very different kind of anti-hero. Not corrupt so much, as entirely focused on protecting his fellow officers, regardless of the collateral damage. He’s one of Hong Kong’s most versatile actors, equally at ease playing a dogged hero or a calculating villain, so it’s hard to get a read on him here but in the end he comes down somewhere in-between. His aim throughout is to protect Fatty, and in his mind the ends justifies the means, so he can rationalise intimidating informants and doling out beatings to suspects – but he has a set of morals too, as we’ll witness in the final confrontation.
PTU isn’t a perfect film, lacking focus for a large portion of the runtime and with a pretty dated soundtrack. There’s a protracted scene where the team silently climb the stairs of the gangs hideout – it should be an incredibly suspenseful sequence, but it’s marred by an incredibly cheesy piece of prog rock on the soundtrack that completely drains the tension. The morality of the film is also questionable to say the least. Both Fatty and Mike are essentially crooked cops, whatever their motivation is, but they are never punished for this, and worse, the one moral character (played by Ruby Wong) is almost forced to apologise at the film’s end, while the corrupt characters are essentially vindicated. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it is jarring, and miles away from the black and white morality of Woo.
However these issues are forgotten by the time the stunningly co-ordinated climactic Mexican standoff rolls around. While the film may not have been especially thrilling up until this point, the shootout throws everything into sharp focus. Johnnie To repeatedly emphasises in his films that quite often, people miss their targets, guns malfunction, and / or they freeze up in the heat of the moment, and rather than detracting from the tension of the scene, this serves to heighten it, leading to the final ironic punchline.
In many ways PTU is an atypical film for To but it nonetheless contains many of his trademarks, including subverting genre expectations, a wry humour and some understated violence. Compared to To’s masterpieces – Election and The Mission – it’s a slightly dated police procedural which is saved by some nifty cinematography and cool, matter of fact performances from the cast – especially Lam Suet, who has never been better.
Brand new commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng; Archival interviews with Johnnie To, Simon Yam and Maggie Siu; Trailers; PLUS: A Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by David West.